The Caliban Shore: The Fate of the Grosvenor Castaways by Stephen Taylor

Adrift on the sea of extremity

In 1782 an East India Company ship ran aground on the eastern coast of South Africa. The Grosvenor was halfway home to England from India when a storm dashed her against the rocky shore. According to contemporary records, of the 140 who sailed from Madras on the Grosvenor, only 13 returned to England. The castaways, pitched into a drama of extremity and isolation, had struggled among themselves to survive. Stephen Taylor, a British journalist, has painstakingly pieced together the details of the maritime disaster and examined the contradictory testimony left by survivors. The result, The Caliban Shore, is a deftly reconstructed slice of high seas drama, inevitably fraught with overtones of Lord of the Flies.

The ship was a microcosm of the snobberies and petty rivalries in British society, carrying a motley of East India Company ranks from gentlemen tradesmen to discharged soldiers, governesses and Muslim sailors, or lascars. In the two months at sea, enmities had already flared as passengers competed for sexual favours and brawled drunkenly below decks. Any consideration they might have shown each other vanished on the night of 4 August, when the Grosvenor foundered off the wild coast of what is now Pondoland. In the panic that ensued, nobody was going to make way for an old woman or baby. As one survivor wrote: "All hands began now to do the best they could for themselves."

The captain, John Coxon, knew he had to rally himself while he was still strong and salvage what his passengers and crew needed from the detritus left by the Grosvenor. Swatches of sailcloth, cooking utensils and other miscellaneous debris were hauled on to dry land. Within 24 hours the 125-odd initial survivors learned what the mind and body can do when it is a matter of self-preservation. Coxon, a flawed individual, tried to re-establish a semblance of shipboard discipline, but lost sight of his duty and moral obligation as the strain overwhelmed him. Later, in a desperate effort to save himself, he abandoned a group of women and children in the African interior, where they surely died from thirst and attrition. Coxon did not himself make it home to London.

Marooned on unknown shores, miles from any European outpost, the group found that class distinctions quickly fell away as humble deckhands took control, and officers collapsed under the stress. New social orders based on small tribal enclaves evolved among the castaways. None of them could remain faithful to their customary morality if they were to survive; instead they stole from and deserted their fellows. From the start, Coxon was fatally hampered as a leader by his willed misunderstanding of the African natives. At best he treated the Pondo people with a condescending regality; at worst, contempt. The news of Captain Cook's death three years earlier in 1779 had profoundly disturbed him. At the age of 50, the English navigator had been hacked to death by Hawaiian islanders and left spreadeagled on the sand like a tropical crucifixion. In cruel reprisal for "thieving", Cook had had Polynesians flogged and their ears cut off. His failure to understand non-Christian morals had cost him his life. Coxon did not want to go the way of Cook, yet he too paid dearly for the obduracy he showed the natives. He and his castaways were stoned by the Pondo in punitive raids and, a week after the wreck, were forced to abandon their makeshift camp. The few surviving men, women and children embarked on a gruelling trek through the wilderness in search of sanctuary.

The survivors now understood that they were probably going to die far from home and soon. Their prime concern during the forced march was to find food. Rank meat was hacked from beached whales; conch, mussels and other shellfish were prised from rocks. Meanwhile, harassed by tribesmen and buffeted by storms, the survivors became increasingly sick and starved. It was vital for them to get some bearing of the territory before it killed them. Coxon struggled to hold on to his waning power while younger sailors, contemptuous of his rank, forged ahead on their own in breakaway rival groups. On 29 November 1782, 16 weeks after the Grosvenor went down, the first of the castaways reached the safety of a Dutch settlement. None of the group of six men was over 30: only the fittest were ever going to survive. The ragged strangers were welcomed by the Dutch, who fed them and sent out rescue parties in search of other survivors. Nobody was found.

In Georgian Britain, the fate of the Grosvenor castaways became a cause célèbre and still is an enduring tale of brute survival and self-preservation. Seven more seamen, independent of Dutch help, made it home to England where they soon disappeared into obscurity. Stephen Taylor, a diligent historian, has studied contemporary accounts of the shipwreck, as well as the many "captivity narratives" (such as Hannah Hewit, or the Female Crusoe) which exploited rumours of white women living among and being sexually abused by African tribes. These tuppenny shockers were the earliest best-sellers, says Taylor.

Impressively, Taylor has travelled in the castaways' footsteps on four different occasions, and the result is a superbly researched hybrid of history and detection. His Conradian delight in maritime terminology ("topgallants", "mizzenmast") can cloy, and a pastiche 18th-century prose occasionally intrudes. Overall, though, The Caliban Shore offers a marvellous account of Europeans adrift in 1780s Africa, as well as a dark parable of the rat-like behaviour of marooned human beings.